TV Spies: Amazon’s Wacky CIA Drug War Conspiracy Flick Draws Qanon Raves
'The Last Narc' docudrama peddles a conspiracy theory that the CIA had a hand in the murder of DEA agent Kiki Camarena.
Does the world need another Deep State conspiracy theory?
Amazon Studios obviously thinks so.
In these grim times, with tens of millions of Americans frightened, angry and ready to believe the worst about their government and each other, Amazon Studios and Amazon Prime have inexplicably chosen to stream a disturbing pseudo-documentary that falsely claims that the CIA and the DEA conspired with Mexican drug kingpins to torture and murder a brave American.
The Last Narc, produced by Texas filmmaker Tiller Russell, is a cynical reimagining of the 1985 death of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, who was dragged into a car outside the U.S. consulate in Guadalajara on February 7, 1985. DEA and FBI agents assigned to Operation Leyenda, as DEA called the murder investigation, plunged deep into Mexico. They didn’t find every fact, but they got enough of them to be sure that the horrendous crime was orchestrated by Guadalajara cartel kingpins and corrupt Mexican officials at all levels.
As a correspondent for Newsweek, then Time, I followed the investigators as they pounded the streets of Guadalajara, the dirt tracks along the border, the sterile hallways of the FBI forensics lab and government executive suites in Washington. I broke dozens of stories about the murder and the growth of the Latin cartels. I wrote a best-selling book, Desperados, published in 1988, about the Camarena case and the narcokleptocracy that killed him.
Along the way I met dozens of heroes—honest men and women, badge-wearers and civilians, citizens of several countries, who turned up truths deemed inconvenient by much of official Washington, Mexico City, Wall Street and international banks addicted to drug money.
One hero was U.S. Customs Commissioner Willy von Raab, who, a week after Camarena disappeared, ordered 100 percent inspections of all people and vehicles attempting to cross from Mexico. He effectively slammed the border shut and unrepentantly incurred the wrath of his boss, Treasury Secretary (and future secretary of state) James Baker, one of the most formidable humans ever to park his wingtips under a mahogany desk in the nation’s capital. But Von Raab’s bold move worked. On March 5, after merchants on both sides of the border howled in financial pain, the Mexican police “discovered” Camarena’s body, exhumed from a shallow grave in Guadalajara and dumped on a roadside in the next state.
Another hero was the CIA officer who alerted the DEA office in Mexico City that the agency had stolen the darkest, most valuable secret of all: The Mexican government appeared to have obtained, or perhaps itself made, tapes of Camarena’s torture. The CIA man shared a snippet of a transcript with the cover name of an informant. Nobody but Jaime Kuykendall, Camarena’s close friend, and Camarena himself used that handle. Its inclusion convinced Kuykendall that the whole transcript was genuine.
The CIA man could have gotten in trouble for burning a good source—somebody in government, possibly in the Mexican interior ministry, which controlled the Federal Security Directorate (DFS), a secret police agency that was the CIA’s counterpart and proxy. Often, DFS officers moonlighted as counter-surveillance agents and enforcement for the Guadalajara cartel, and traffickers carried DFS badges. Exposing a dirty source in the security apparatus could have disrupted the agency’s mission, which was not to solve murders or chase drug traffickers. But the CIA officer must have acted out of a belief that the American people had a right to the truth, no matter how ugly.
The CIA tip enabled another hero, DEA chief Jack Lawn, to confront Mexican officials and demand the torture tapes. Lawn got five of them. (Two more were thought to exist and are missing to this day.) Listening to tapes was a terrible but necessary task for Camarena’s bereaved friends and partners. They would eventually identify the interrogator through voice prints as a former commander of the Political and Social Investigations (IPS), a secret police element that, like the DFS, was part of the interior ministry. The interrogator was after the identities of DEA informants and what Camarena and his partners knew about corrupt Mexican politicians, military and police figures.
I’ve recently talked to many of the people I met while on the trail of Camarena”s killers. These include two DEA administrators, Jack Lawn and Rob Bonner; the first Leyenda supervisors, Bill Coonce, Carlo Boccia and Jack Taylor; and numerous other senior investigators who did ground-breaking work. But you won’t hear them in The Last Narc.
Real documentaries dig up facts, air all sides of a story, feature dissenting voices as well as those in agreement, and tell viewers what they don’t know and need to know. Instead, the “Everything Store,” as Amazon likes to call itself, is streaming to its 150 million (as of January 2020) pandemic-fatigued Prime subscribers a clichéd CIA-did-it yarn dreamed up by a bitter retired DEA agent named Hector Berrellez, now 73. Producer Russell has told interviewers that he was put onto the story by Chuck Bowden, a freelance journalist, now deceased, who in 2014 published a series of interviews with Berrellez on the online outlet Medium.
Berrellez disagrees with nearly everything other agents concluded about who killed Kiki Camarena and why. The real question is, who’s right?
Zero Dark Evidence
Berrellez claims, without hard substantiation, that a retired CIA officer, Felix Rodriguez (a Cuban-American famed for his roles in the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War and the CIA’s covert war in Nicaragua) had Camarena tortured and executed to protect an agency drug-running scheme that was financing the Nicaraguan Contras, the anti-Communist jungle fighters supported by the Ronald Reagan White House. Berrellez says he has learned, from cartel bodyguards-turned-informants whom he recruited and paid that “Felix Rodriguez...interrogated Kiki Camarena and was there at the scene where Kiki was killed,” and that unnamed officials at DEA headquarters forced him to keep silent—committing multiple felonies, if true.
Three current or former DEA agents who debriefed the informants in the early 1990s, when the investigation was active, say the snitches never mentioned Rodriguez, or “Max Gomez,” his cover name, or a Cuban, or the CIA or the Contras.
Berrellez also charges, also with risible “evidence,” that DEA higher-ups helped the CIA cover up the alleged murder plot by destroying Berrellez’ reports and also telling him not to write reports about the spy agency’s involvement.
Both things can’t be true.
The Last Narc attempts to portray Berrellez as a hero—the hero—of the case.
Fact is, Berrellez didn’t come near the murder case until 1989, when it was in wrap-up mode. He didn’t crack the case, as Russell and Amazon now claim. He was not on the street, working on the murder investigation, during the first four years, when it was at its most urgent and when critical breakthroughs were made.
I would know. I was there, and I have the nightmares to prove it. So do the agents who were on the ground during those terrible times.
“By the time Berrellez got involved in it, the case was all solved,” Coonce, the senior DEA investigator who led the investigation for the crucial first year, told me. “He solved nothing.”
“Hector was always into aggrandizement, as can be seen in the many and varied ways that he has chased the dollar, fame, and played very loose with the facts,” says Dale Stinson, who worked with both Berrellez and Camarena and served as Operation Leyenda agent in Mexico City. (Among other achievements, he elicited an admission of guilt from the flamboyant Guadalajara cartel kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero.)
“It’s shameful,” says Stinson, “that Hector would build his reputation on the death of a good man who sacrificed more than any of the rest of us.”
Beyond Berrellez and his small circle—consisting of two other disaffected ex-agents who were also not there during the important first years; three informants, all paid generously at Berrellez’ direction, and Berrellez’ mother—I haven’t found a single active-duty or former DEA agent who confirms Berrellez’ conspiracy theory. I can’t even find an agent who says that Berrellez related the theory back in 1989 through the early 1990s, when he was working the case. I asked Berrellez exactly when he came up with it, and who he told about it. He has not answered.
I believe Berrellez concocted the theme only within the past few years, knowing that conspiracy theories about the CIA and so-called Deep State sell.
“Amazon has created a cruel and unfeeling interpretation of a tragedy that struck at the heart of the Camarena story and every employee of the DEA,” says Larry McElynn, president of the Association of Federal Narcotics Agents. In a statement, McElynn called the production a “shoddy fictional enterprise” and “cheap entertainment.”
Russell did not respond to detailed questions about the production, among them: why the production did not include interviews with numerous current and former DEA agents who disagree with Berrellez’ allegations.
Shipra Gupta, a spokesperson for Amazon Studios, responded to our request for comment by asking for names of our sources and the focus of our story; she did not address the specific questions emailed to Russell and Berrellez.
“I believe that Hector is delusional,” says Lawn, DEA administrator from March 1985 to March 1990. “Berrellez is trying to enhance his self-image as a gunslinger and to mythologize his years as a special agent.”
“Some of the things Berrellez says are so ridiculously outrageous, it would be amazing that anybody would give him any credit,” says Bonner, who succeeded Lawn from August 1990 to November 1993. Bonner served as U.S. Attorney for Los Angeles from 1984 to early 1989, overseeing the prosecution of defendants charged with the Camarena murder. He sat as a federal judge from February 1989 to August 1990, leaving the post to take the helm of DEA.
“I wrote and debriefed most of the informants in the Leyenda investigation,” says ex-agent Sal Leyva, who worked on the Leyenda case from the day Camarena was reported missing and who was later transferred to Los Angeles to work on the Leyenda group, when it was supervised by Berrellez. Leyva says that he wrote most of the informant debriefing reports that Berrellez signed. Three of those informants are shown in The Last Narc, claiming that they saw Felix Rodriguez at the house where Camarena was tortured.
My question for Berrellez and others at DEA is, what did the informants say in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Berrellez first recruited them? Did they say then what they’re saying now, on camera—that they saw a CIA man, an American, someone speaking with a Cuban accent, or someone using the names Felix Rodriguez or Max Gomez at the murder scene?
No, says Leyva. “I was always with Hector almost 24/7 I would have known.”
From 1985 to 1988 the Leyenda investigation was supervised by Bill Coonce, Carlo Boccia and Jack Taylor, all senior supervisors at DEA headquarters, with teams of investigators in Washington, Guadalajara, Mexico City, San Diego and Los Angeles feeding them data. Bonner’s office filed the first conspiracy indictment, unsealed on January 6, 1988, charging the three Guadalajara kingpins, three high-ranking Mexican police officials and the former secret police interrogator. The kingpins—Rafael Caro Quintero, Ernesto Fonseca and Miguel Felix Gallardo—remain In Mexico to this day. In 1989, as several cases of marginal figures charged in the Los Angeles case were going to trial, the DEA investigative team was consolidated in the agency’s Los Angeles office. Berrellez was assigned to that team.
Doug Kuehl, a highly respected agent in Los Angeles, supervised the team until he asked for a demotion to avoid a transfer to DEA headquarters, because of family obligations. The supervisor’s job went to Berrellez, on account of his seniority.
Berrellez was known as a good undercover agent because of his facility with Spanish and swagger, a plus when meeting with traffickers nose-to-nose. He was not known for the kind of methodical fact-finding and critical thinking at which Kuehl excelled.
The Leyenda group, reduced to five or six agents, sat in a common area, and Berrellez had an office adjoining them. According to Leyva, they shared information freely. Would they have kept quiet if they had learned of new and explosive evidence that an American citizen or a CIA operative was involved in the murder of Camarena?
“Impossible,” says Leyva.
“There was never ever a CIA connection to the case,” says another former agent who was part of the Leyenda group in Los Angeles in those years. “We never had any informant say anything about a Cuban or Felix Rodriguez or Max Gomez.” This man asked not to be named because he still works in a sensitive position.
The Amazon film contends that senior DEA officials in Mexico and Washington conspired with the CIA and the Guadalajara cartel to murder the agent. That is a breathtaking charge that, if proven, would confirm conspiracy theorists’ worst suspicions, that balaclava-clad U.S. government assassins liquidate innocents at will.
Berrellez’ informants are shown in The Last Narc claiming that they witnessed a DEA official accepting bags of cash from kingpin Ernesto Fonseca, and that they saw that DEA official at meetings where the traffickers were planning the Camarena abduction.
Agents who worked on the case in the 1980s and 1990s say that Berrellez did not report these allegations when he was in the DEA. They say that there’s a grain of truth in them: Early on, some Mexican cops spread rumors that Camarena was kidnapped because he was on the take and wasn’t delivering.
These suspicions were never confirmed by any of the hundreds of DEA informants and sources, according to the agents on the case at the time. The torture tapes contain nothing to suggest that Camarena or his partners were corrupt.
“If that [DEA corruption] would have been on the tapes, the Mexicans would have plastered it all over because they were trying to get an alibi,” says a Spanish-speaking agent who worked on the case, before and during Berrellez’ tenure.
I met Berrellez on a film set in 1989, shortly after he was assigned to the Leyenda team. At the time, the acclaimed writer-director-producer Michael Mann and his team were shooting an NBC docudrama based on my book. Mann’s production, Drug Wars: The Camarena Story, won an Emmy. His sequel, Drug Wars: The Cocaine Cartel, also based on my book, was nominated for a second Emmy.
Berrellez seemed starstruck. He was hanging about, hoping, I thought at the time, to be discovered. “Next movie Michael Mann makes, it’s gonna be about me,” he boasted.
That would never happen. Berrellez tried hard to attract others in Hollywood. In March 1990, he made worldwide headlines with a flashy gambit in which he paid Mexican bounty-hunters $250,000 to abduct Humberto Alvarez Machain, a Guadalajara physician, and fly him to El Paso so Berrellez could arrest him for drugging Camarena to prolong his torture. Problem was, Berrellez and his team had plenty of suspicions but not enough proof to satisfy federal trial judge Edward Rafeedie, who threw the case out in 1992 for lack of evidence, freed the doctor and chastised the prosecutors and agents for organizing a kidnapping on a “hunch” and “wildest speculation.”
Alvarez Machain promptly sued the U.S. Department, DEA administrator Jack Lawn, Berrellez and several supervisors. Berrellez tried to fix blame for the kidnapping elsewhere. In the Amazon production, Berrellez describes a colorful scene in which Lawn personally summons him to Washington, sits him down, and asks, “How much would he cost?” When a reluctant Berrellez says $250,000, Lawn snaps, “Okay, do it. I want it done.”
But that’s not what Berrellez told me when I interviewed him the day after the kidnapping arrest. He never mentioned Lawn, who had retired a month earlier. He said the authority came from the U.S. Attorney’s office.
And it’s not what Berrellez testified under oath as the doctor”s lawsuit ground through the courts over the next 14 years. According to court records, he claimed his authority came from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles and from Pete Gruden, the deputy DEA administrator, now deceased. During the civil suit, Justice Department lawyers defending Berrellez’s version of the authorization presented as evidence an anonymous memorandum entitled, “Operation Leyenda: Chronology” that claimed Lawn “was advised” of the kidnap plan. Since Lawn denied even being “advised,” and there was no other evidence supporting the agent’s version, an appeals court judge wrote, “The assertions contained in Berrellez's testimony and in the memorandum are therefore unsupported by the evidence.”
Significantly, the court record shows that neither Berrellez nor anybody else told the story that’s now in The Last Narc—that Lawn initiated the idea of a kidnapping and commanded Berrellez to carry it out.
“I was unaware of any investigative efforts to kidnap the doctor, who had been kidnapped after my retirement,” says Lawn. “We had been aware of his alleged involvement during the interrogation of Kiki Camarena.He was one piece of a very complicated puzzle.”
“Lawn is a liar and a fraud,” Berrellez said when contacted last week. “He continues to deny that he ordered me to kidnap the doctor.” In response, I asked him for documentation of his alleged trip to Washington and meeting with Lawn. A day later, he had not responded.
While the kidnapped physician was in court, Berrellez tried another route to stardom by recruiting some cartel bodyguards as informants and witnesses. He arranged for them to get green cards and millions of taxpayer dollars from DEA funds. In some cases, he helped them extricate themselves from legal problems. Not surprisingly, some of them named prominent Mexican politicians, including two former Mexican presidents, as co-conspirators, but the informants’ tales were apparently unverifiable. The prosecutors declined to file indictments against the ex-presidents and other VIPs.
At trials of lesser figures in the early 1990s, the bodyguard-witnesses’ inconsistent statements and absence of corroboration created at least as many problems as they resolved. The Los Angeles Times ran a series sharply questioning their veracity. Privately, many agents also doubted them. Some told me they believed Berrellez was encouraging his snitches to tell sexy false stories.
“You have to be very careful how you handle those people,” says Leyva, one of several agents who helped handle and debrief the informants. “They can read you. They say, ‘Oh, he wants me to say this.’ And they’ll say it. I think you have to be able to handle informants and know when they're telling you the truth, or what they think you want to hear, and then that’s only the beginning.”
!n 1993 then-DEA administrator Bonner shut down the DEA Leyenda team. “We’d done everything we could in terms of evidence,” says Bonner. “We’d indicted all the major figures of the Guadalajara cartel and also some major figures in the Mexican government. We’d exposed major corruption at both the state and federal level.” Officially, the case remains open. Today, eight people, including the kingpins, are officially wanted as fugitives. But there is no longer a large, dedicated investigative team.
Berrellez was transferred to Washington in 1994. He retired in 1996.
Around 2013, in interviews with freelancer Bowden and others, Berrellez promoted his conspiracy theory that the CIA killed Camarena because Camarena was about to reveal that the agency was working with the Guadalajara cartel to run drugs to the United States. The arrangement supposedly was that the cartel got protection from U.S. authorities and the CIA got drug money for the Contras. This theory was a Mexicanized twist on a 1996 series, Dark Alliance by San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, who committed suicide after his work was discredited. (Webb’s photo appears in a few frames of The Last Narc, apparently in homage.) Producer Russell has told interviewers he was inspired by articles published in 2014 by freelancer Bowden recounting Berrellez’ claims.
To be sure, allegations have been lodged over the years that people linked to the CIA and the Contras were involved in the drug trade. During a 1986 investigation led by then-Senator John Kerry, a Colombian cartel money launderer testified that he channeled about $10 million to the Contras through Felix Rodriguez. Even the CIA’s internal watchdog concluded that, while the spy agency didn’t deal in drugs, it ignored hundreds of allegations contained in nearly a thousand cables that Contra officers, contractors and supporters engaged in trafficking. But no convincing evidence exists that Camarena was murdered because he knew too much, much less that he was about to blow the whistle on it.
No cloaks, no daggers
Kuykendall, Camarena’s boss in Guadalajara, says the CIA had no motive to silence Camarena.
“The DEA-Guadalajara office had no information about a CIA drug-running operation and that includes Kiki,” he says. “The drug traffickers had all the assistance they needed [to traffic in drugs] through the Mexican government.”
Pete Hernandez, another agent in the Guadalajara office, backs Kuykendall, saying he never heard Camarena talk about CIA drug-running or the Contras.
Also, according to several agents who have heard them, the torture tapes contain no mention of the CIA, Contras, or any other transnational political issue. They’re strictly about the drug business.
Felix Rodriguez himself has said that he was not in Mexico at the time and could not have been present in Guadalajara.
“The Intel community helped in providing information,” says Lawn, “but at no time did the investigation take us to Nicaragua, or to the Contras. The fanciful narrative outlined in The Last Narc makes interesting viewing but is without historic merit.”
Berrellez’ response to me: “It is sad how you were mislead [sic] from the truth by Kuykendall and Lawn.”
Bonner says Berrellez never raised allegations about CIA involvement to him. He says he would never have told Berrellez or anyone else that the DEA could not investigate a CIA operative for murder. Bonner, who publicly tangled with the CIA in other cases, says he would have done battle if the DEA had tried to protect anyone implicated in the Camarena matter. “It just wasn’t there,” Bonner says. “If it had been there, we would have investigated it until we ran it to ground…The CIA never contacted me when I was U.S. Attorney or at DEA. If a CIA guy tried, I would have gone through the roof.”
Not to mention that, as everyone with experience in Washington knows, the CIA, DEA and FBI fight like alley cats. It’s impossible to believe any of these turf-jealous, aggressive bureaucracies would let a rival agency get away with expense account cheating, much less murder and drug smuggling.
Part of the complicated conspiracy theory portrayed by the film is that Camarena was set up by an unnamed DEA agent based in Guadalajara who had been feeding information to the cartel for years in exchange for bags of cash. Current and former DEA agents dismiss that out of hand: If cartel leaders already had a pipeline into DEA, why would they disrupt it, especially if, as the film shows, the dirty agent was senior, with access to more and better information than Camarena?
“If a DEA official was providing confidential DEA sources and other intelligence,” says Bonner, “why were they interrogating Kiki? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Berrellez’ claim that he knows too much and is marked for death looks like puffery to me.
“I’m not fearful that the traffickers are going to kill me,” he says in the film. “I’m fearful that my own government is going to kill me.”
Fear, from a man who once told an interviewer that he prided himself on being a “gunslinger” and didn’t know how many people he had killed? No, it looks more like a boast.
Meanwhile, the Amazon-Russell film has won some good reviews. Unfortunately, some are from QAnon.
The Last Narc conspiracy theory is tailor-made for the relatively young but fast-growing pro-Trump, pro-conspiracy movement that holds that the Deep State—meaning, intelligence and law enforcement agencies—are murderous robotic servants of a cabal of monied Jewish and liberal elites and cannibal pedophiles.
As Adrienne LaFrance of The Atlantic observed, “If the internet is one big rabbit hole containing infinitely recursive rabbit holes, QAnon has somehow found its way down all of them, gulping up lesser conspiracy theories as it goes.”
Sure enough, recently, a Qanon adherent who calls himself Kevin Collins posted a glowing account of The Last Narc on a 6,000-member Facebook page called “Deep State Mapping Project:
This documentary series on Amazon Prime is the story of one such Patriot. His name was Kiki Camarena and he was murdered by Bush family allies while fighting for us….in this series you will learn about heroes like DEA Agent Hector Berrellez and honest members of Mexican law enforcement who have risked their lives fighting to get the truth out.
A site called BitChute praised the Amazon project as an “old take on the deep state, and in particular the old deep state headed by the WASP Rockefellerist CFR faction.” (The CFR, or Council on Foreign Relations, an elite, middle-of-the-road organization originally funded by the Rockefeller family, has long been a favorite target of both the far right and far left.)
The DEA is slowly, belatedly pushing back. Sources say DEA headquarters recently authorized a team of internal investigators to conduct an inquiry into Berrellez’s allegations of corruption. Some retired agents are quietly exploring the possibility of legal action.
If Amazon, Russell and Berrellez are as shameless as I think they are, they’ll enjoy the publicity. For my money, The Last Narc is just a cheesy hoax. It won’t destroy Kiki Camarena’s sacrifice and his legacy. It cheapens Amazon. If that’s possible.
SpyTalk Contributing Editor Elaine Shannon’s latest book is Hunting LeRoux: The Inside Story of the DEA Takedown of a Criminal Genius and His Empire.